Grace, Works, Faithfulness, and Jesus

Grace, Works, Faithfulness, and Jesus February 26, 2020

Jesus obeys, therefore God highly exalted him. This is what Paul says in Philippians 2:6-11. How does this relate to his frequent assertions that God accepts human beings on the basis of grace and not works? Does it lend support to the interpretation that Paul’s focus is not in fact good works or obedience as Luther thought, but “works of the Law” in the sense of the specific requirements that separate Jews from Gentiles, such as circumcision, kosher food laws, and Sabbath observance? Might it even be that Jesus’ own case contributed to Paul’s reasoning about and formulation of his position on what saves – faithfulness like that of Jesus, rather than being part of the Jewish people? If so, this would have relevance not only to our understanding of “works” in Paul, but also the “faith(fulness) of Jesus” and Christology.

In light of this, how might we render Galatians 3:26? We could understand it to be saying that “through faithfulness,  you are all children of God in Christ” (or perhaps, not only depending where one places a comma, but also how one views certain technical phrases of Paul’s, “you are all in Christ, [and thus] children of God, through faithfulness.” There is no need to decide whether that faithfulness is Jesus’ or that of his followers to whom Paul is writing. For Paul, it may have been both: Jesus’ faithfulness creates the new covenant opening the door to welcoming in Gentiles, and those Gentiles enter by believing that God has accepted Jesus’ faithfulness and by offering themselves to God in faithfulness like that of Jesus.

What do you think? Does this understanding of what Paul wrote fit?

Elsewhere on related topics:

Works of the Law in the Second Century

“Justification” in Second-Century Christian Texts

Michael Gorman’s Participationist Theology

AJR on The Origins of Midrash

Faith and Works

What Kind of Jew was Paul?

See also Dale Tuggy’s discussion of Jesus’ obedience and exaltation, with particular focus on Hebrews but also mentioning Paul’s letters in places. Also related is Jim Wallis’ podcast “What About Jesus?”



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  • Nimblewill

    ………and the life that I live, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Maybe Christ in me is His faith inside me. He is the author and finisher of my faith. Like genetics/DNA. I function as a body, a vessel, a house for Him and His faithfulness. I have to decrease so that He can increase. In my weakness He is made strong. Get the behind me Mike!!!!!!!!!!

  • I don’t think Paul is talking about faith vs works in Galatians 3. I think he’s talking about faith vs. the Law, and not just the “ceremonial” parts of it. The Gentile believers are not supposed to take on the covenant of Torah, and Paul argues this by pointing out that they received the Spirit when they believed, not by taking on Torah. And since Abraham was justified by faith (prior to the Law), and he is the father of both Jew and Gentile, this establishes that the Gentiles will be blessed through Abraham by also being able to be justified apart from the Law.

    The question you’re addressing is: does the faith described in Galatians 3 also assume obedient works? Galatians 3 doesn’t tell us that, but as we look at the Pauline corpus and the NT as a whole, it’s pretty difficult to describe a faith that does not involve good works. James goes out of his way to make sure people don’t understand that faith that way and also summons Abraham as his example. Perhaps to correct potential misunderstandings as a result of Paul’s teaching?

    • John MacDonald

      Phil said “as we look at the Pauline corpus and the NT as a whole, it’s pretty difficult to describe a faith that does not involve good works”

      I think the problem with Paul is that while he does have a good social/ethical teaching, he simply silences its value in the face of what he saw as the infinitely more important focus. Hence, Paul says “and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. (1 Cor 15:14)” The foundation of faith here is not attached to good works, and such good works are empty from the point of view of faith if Christ is not raised.

      David Goicoechea argues Nietzsche in “The Antichrist” contrasted this nihilistic view of Paul where Paul pushed away the importance of the good works of this life, with the Jesus of Q1 who taught agape even to the point of including love of enemy:

      “Jesus him self had done away with the very concept of “guilt,” he denied that there was any gulf fixed between God and man; he lived this unity between God and man, and that was precisely his “glad tidings”…. And not as a mere privilege!—From this time forward the type of the Saviour was corrupted, bit by bit, by the doctrine of judgment and of the second coming, the doctrine of death as a sacrifice, the doctrine of the resurrection, by means of which the entire concept of “blessedness,” the whole and only reality of the gospels, is juggled away—in favour of a state of existence after death!… St. Paul, with that rabbinical impudence which shows itself in all his doings, gave a logical quality to that conception, that indecent conception, in this way: “If Christ did not rise from the dead, then all our faith is in vain! (Nietzsche, The Anti Christ, 41) “

      • Hmm. I think, though, Paul is referring to the immediate consequences for Israel (and by extension the Gentiles) if Jesus hasn’t been raised. I don’t think he’s saying that faith is meaningless if it’s not faith in the resurrection. Or am I misunderstanding you?

        In the Nietzsche quote you posted, he seems to be coming at an understanding of Jesus and Paul that seems to match the Greco-Roman theological projection of the Gospels (i.e. Man is separated from God, but through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can be with God when we die), but I don’t think that would be cogent to either Jesus or Paul. I think Paul is saying that, if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, that meant that Israel was still screwed on the historical world stage.

        In that case, the faith would be in vain because God would still hold Israel under the curse of the Law and would not realize the kingdom that Jewish believers hoped God would bring and, by extension, Gentile believers who came to believe that God was going to do this through Jesus Christ. If Jesus is still dead then none of this would happen and God obviously still intends to leave Israel to her oppressors.

        • John MacDonald

          In the Anti Christ, as best as we can tell, Nietzsche tries to contrast a Nihilistic Christianity that trivializes this world by shifting all the weight and focus onto the next life, with what would later be called the Jesus of Q1 who taught an agape focused on this life that is expanded beyond traditional understandings of love to include love of enemy. That’s David Goicoechea’s interpretation of Nietzsche in this book, anyway: . It’s a very interesting argument that is compelling in that it goes beyond the simplistic anti-Christian interpretation of Nietzsche. A similar argument focusing on Nietzsche and the question of agape is this short article by Beatrice Han-Pile:

          • That sounds like a good critique.

            What I would say is that Jesus and Paul were both focused on this life, concrete historical and political outcomes, with little interest in an afterlife. Sure, the topic comes up, but neither of them are primarily interested in what happens in the afterlife.

            Paul is a little more concerned about the fate of martyrs, which is understandable considering A) Christian martyrs wouldn’t be a thing until later, and B) he was responsible for some of those Christian martyrs. But even that theme is subsumed under the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God and judgement of the present kingdoms.

          • John MacDonald

            I think with 1 Cor 15:14 Paul would say that Christ not being raised would negate the value of this life, somewhat analogous to the question raised in Ezekiel 33:10, “Therefore, O thou son of man, speak unto the house of Israel; Thus ye speak, saying, If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?.” I think Nietzsche would say Paul is operating from the foundation of the resurrection of Jesus, without which faith and preaching for Paul is futile, whereas the Jesus of Q1 primarily operates out of place of loving agape that even transfigure enemies to be worthy of love along with widow, orphan, and stranger.

          • I also think Paul is echoing a very similar sentiment to Ezekiel 33:10, which is, “How can Israel survive if we continue to be judged for our sins?” It doesn’t have anything to do with an afterlife or even humanity in general, but rather the ongoing experience of God’s people in the world. In the Ezekiel passage, the ongoing onslaught of oppressors results in the fall of Jerusalem.

            In Paul’s letter, he is also contemplating the destiny of God’s people at the hands of the nations (which, interestingly, will also involve the fall of Jerusalem to siege). If Jesus hasn’t been raised from the dead, then God is still punishing them and they can expect to die for nothing. But if Jesus has been raised, that means the time of rescue and renewal is at hand, and God will judge -the nations-. I would say this is primarily about the historico-political existence of the faithful in the world and only by distant tangent would have anything to say about the afterlife or even about humanity in general in an abstract, cosmological sense.

            Obviously, mileage varies on that. 🙂

          • Matthew

            But resurrection is central to both Jesus Christ and Paul and resurrection has both “this life” and “afterlife” consequences … no?

          • Yes, in the sense that Jesus’ resurrection is perceived as the beginning of the resurrection of the faithful martyrs and, ultimately, the general resurrection of the faithful. But I don’t think that’s the focus of Paul’s thought, which is very historically oriented, not afterlife or end-of-the-world oriented.

  • John MacDonald

    I think Paul expected everyone, including the gentiles, to follow the law, which in its essence is loving God and neighbor, which God wrote on their hearts:

    “14 When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness” Romans 2:14-16

    • John MacDonald

      Similarly, Paul says in Galatians “Rather, serve one another in love. 14The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Gal 5:13-14)”

      • This is exactly why I think that “works of the Law” means those things that were specific to Israel such as circumcision, food laws, etc. Paul says the Gentiles are not under the Law, and yet also that they are to fulfill it, but clearly not fulfill its requirements that separated Jews from Gentiles.

        • John MacDonald

          James said: “Paul says the Gentiles are not under the Law, and yet also that they are to fulfill it, but clearly not fulfill its requirements that separated Jews from Gentiles.” Yes, that seems right.